In my day job in FM radio, I’ve been listening to an Urban Adult Contemporary station all day. Old school R&B. Fabulous songs.
“Thin Line Between Love and Hate,” Persuaders
“After the Love Is Gone,” Earth, Wind and Fire
“Get Down Tonight,” KC and the Sunshine Band
“If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes
“La-La-Means I Love You,” Delfonics
“What’s Goin’ On,” Marvin Gaye
“Ooo Baby Baby,” Smokey Robinson and the Miracles
“You Make Me Feel Brand New,” Stylistics
“Have You Seen Her,” Chi-Lites
“I’ll Be Around,” Spinners
“Brick House,” Commodores
“When A Man Loves A Woman,” Percy Sledge
“Boogie Oogie Oogie,” A Taste of Honey
“Get Down On It,” Kool and the Gang
“That’s the Way Of the World,” Earth, Wind and Fire
“Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology),” Marvin Gaye
The new R&B songs don’t have melodies as good as the list above. Why is that?
Contemporary R&B singers use what I call “melismatic excess.” Dictionary.com defines melisma as “a passage of several notes sung to one syllable of text, as in Gregorian chant.” The first word of the “Star Spangled Banner,” Oh, is sung over two notes; that’s melisma.
During the first half of the 20th century, melisma was considered in bad taste. You will search long to find a song by Gershwin, Porter, Berlin, Kern, Warren, Arlen, Carmichael, or any songwriter of that period who used melisma. Broadway standard was one syllable, one note.
Today you will search long to find a ballad or R&B singer who does not use melisma. American Idol style is melisma. And we’re not just talking two notes, like the Oh in “Star Spangled Banner.” Singers nowadays think they’re not showing their stuff if they don’t take every last syllable up and down and all around.
I’m not certain who is to blame because I’m not up on the history of R&B, but I suspect it is Whitney Houston. She was the first one I noticed in this style. Gospel singing is probably involved with the development; it certainly has a lot of melisma.
I think the songwriting has become slower and less interesting to accommodate the long notes singers love to flog up and down the musical staff in order to show off their voice. You can have crisp, interesting songwriting or melismatic excess, but not both.
There is a related phenomenon in Classic Rock. Have you noticed that great guitarists tend to be mediocre songwriters? Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Alvin Lee, Santana, Stevie Ray Vaughan -- all just so-so songwriters (with moments of brilliance, such as “Stairway to Heaven”). Most great rock songwriters were not great lead guitarists: Brian Wilson, Lennon and McCartney, Pete Townsend, Bob Dylan, Ray Davies, Bob Seger, Tom Petty, Roger Waters.
The great guitarists who were also great songwriters -- Chuck Berry, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Neil Young -- were able to put songwriting first, guitar solo second. The other great guitar soloists -- Hendrix, Page, Lee, Santana, Vaughan -- tended to think guitar riffs first, songwriting second. There are exceptions.
The point I’m making is: if a songwriter makes showing off a singer’s voice or a guitarist’s chops the primary consideration, then the songwriting suffers. It becomes boring and second rate.
Frankly, I think the contemporary ballad style of melismatic excess is in abysmally bad taste. The harmony and tempo drone on in some soporific pattern while the singer howls to the moon. BORING. In the future they will look back on our age and wonder what we were thinking.